Dig?

First in a series of posts celebrating the collaboration of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, on the occasion of the upcoming publication of their new work SPACEMAN and a show highlighting Risso's work at The Rogues Gallery in Chicago.

Fourteen years ago, Argentine cartoonist Eduardo Risso came to the United States. An artist with almost a decade of experience, he had already drawn albums released in Argentina and in Europe, most of which have since been translated from the original Spanish and released in this country. His work was first published in Heavy Metal and by Dark Horse and then, at DC, he was matched with Brian Azzarello, an up and coming writer with a few short stories for the publisher under his belt. The project was Johnny Double, a former cop and private eye based in San Francisco created by Marv Wolfman and Len Wein in the late Sixties.

How they were brought together, and, for that matter, why they were on this particular, rarely used, property, are things I do not know. I may, however, be privy to their method of collaboration: a employee of one of the two comic shops I frequent in Chicago's north suburbs told me once that, when the two creators do talk directly, they do so by way of the Spanish that Azzarello learned working in the backs of restaurants, as Risso speaks only a little English. If writing is a conversation with oneself, than comics, as fundamentally collaborative, are conversations with yourself and with the selves of, at least one but usually a few, others. Azzarello and Risso must, then, mostly communicate through the crime and noir genres, genres with languages all their own, spoken not with words but instead with darkness and light. This is a miraculous thing; the two speak this language so fluently, even in their first collaboration they communicate so well, that their work together is nearly flawless. This first mini would lead to the second longest unbroken creative run of the last two decades, the brilliantly plotted and vaguely philosophical 100 Bullets, a title which is surely either the premier crime comic of that span or a very close runner-up.

With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect that their coming together must have been an accident. Nothing this perfect is ever planned.

Last week, through their Vertigo Resurrected series of 100 page collections, DC Comics rereleased that previously out-of-print first collaboration, Johnny Double: Two Finger Discount. This comic is without a doubt the progenitor of what would come barely a year later: even on the first page, the elements we would now know as the hallmarks of the Azzarello/Risso style are on display. The narrator starts with a story, talking at us like he talks at everybody else. The ink lines are thin, but definitive. The characters are well defined, there isn't a line out of place, but they remain cartoony. The panel design is dynamic, almost interactive, but legible. Few things are approached directly, either in the storytelling or in the pictures. Most importantly, though, there's a sort of subdued glee, as if the two are just barely controlling their excitement at the prospect of unleashing deliciously horrible thing upon deliciously horrible thing.

And the whole thing is as sweet as a first big score.

But there's a seedy core to the sweetness: this isn't a straight up crime story, but none of the good ones ever are. Johnny Double is downright prophetic; the titular character is a beatnik asswipe at the end of the twentieth century, a street wise old man too smart not to get played, a child of love and dope who never really found the first or gave up the second. He's been slinking through life since the sixties, and his world is about to change: the dead bum on the story's first page is the first horseman of the Apocalypse, come to bring the end of days to Johnny Double.

Not far behind are a group of youngsters, street wise in their own way, but not hip like Double; not ready for what comes, not that Double is, either. Nihilists, they see that the world is ending, and they steal for their share and they fuck who they can, knowing that their time is not infinite. And then there's the puppetmaster, a ghost playing the worried father, and his daughter (his lover?), looking for that last big score, that gold wristwatch, so that they can get out of the game.

And then, there's Risso's grubby, sticky San Francisco, all garish lights and overwhelming shadows, with the dead bum under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (recognizable, but always in shadows, black rather than the iconic red) and the underground parties and the bodies in the bay. Risso's city is made all the more real because it's populated by Azzarello's bums, beatniks and con-men, because its the character that really does, in the end, seem capable of seeing the whole thing through; Johnny Double can't possibly take place anywhere else. It belongs in San Francisco, at the end of the twentieth century, just like the story, tightly wound and perfectly placed, belongs to crime fiction, not just to noir or to the con but to crime (and the only motives that the criminal understands) on the whole.

Johnny Double's a hipster, a beatnik asswipe, a private dick with nothing except the memory of the way that things were once, and at least he's got that. The other characters, the ones with shorter memories? They've got nothing. Azzarello's Johnny Double is an anti-hero for the ages, one turned into an icon by happenstance of being played and the happenstance of the medium into which he was born; Azzarello and Risso know their medium and their genre, know that they're dealing with icons, and so that's what this Johnny Double is; a figure deified not for taking a stand, but instead for being the lesser of all evils, the one who stands firm in the face of the Apocalypse not because he is brave but because he can't see that far past his shades.

If he could see beyond them, though, he'd find a world that's hyper real, one that's just the other side of our existence, one that's plausible despite its contrivances and yet, because Risso works in cartoons rather than in photorealism, one that speaks to a world where contrivance is plausible, where some one is always pulling the strings. Johnny Double isn't perfect, although it comes pretty close, and it is a good indicator of what's to come: with this book Azzarello and Risso came together. This is a marvel: what comes next is history.

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